15 May 2008

‘The Church needs to be a voice for under-achievers’

The bishops of the Church of Ireland gathered in Galway

Patrick Comerford

In a clear and lucid presentation of the problems in education in Northern Ireland, the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, the Right Rev Ken Good, said there had been many good news stories, but problems and challenges that need to be addressed. These include: “empty desks” – there will be 48,000 surplus places in schools by 2012; academic selection and under-achievement, with too many boys de-motivated by failure – the Church needs to be a voice for a fair deal for “under-achievers”; the price of grammar school success; and the review of public administration, which is creating uncertainty at a crucial point in the planning of education.

The removal of Protestant (TRC) nominees from school boards is also a problem, he said. He warned about the danger of “Terminal-5-type planning.” He called for an equal opportunity for all to reach their potential. He called for informed parental choice on transfer. And he called for a healthy diversity in which schools could maintain their distinctive ethos. Specialist resources should be shared.

Referring to the role of religious faith in state education, he said children at faith-based schools, which are the most popular and are over-sized, learn the lessons of greatest worth. He warned against the dangers of the Churches being cut out of this partnership. “We are prepared to work as an educational partner with the Department,” he said.

Bishop Harold Miller (Down and Dromore) spoke of his own experiences in a primary school in working class North Belfast, where he was one of the few pupils to get through the 11 Plus system. He described the “iniquity of that system” and hoped every child would get an equal opportunity.

The Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev Houston McKelvey, warned there could be no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the problems. Demographic changes in Belfast were unpredictable and volatile. “What kind of a world are we preparing our young people for?” he spoke of the increasing marginalisation of the Protestant Churches in education in Northern Ireland, and a secularism that is attacking mainly the Protestant community.

Archdeacon Philip Paterson of Down, referring to Bishop Good’s remarks on “empty desks,” said schools were being allowed to wither on the vine until they close. He said there was no area planning: “We knew this was coming, we knew this was problem.” The transferors would be a thing of the past, and there would be no transferors in the new schools. “We need to speak out, and we need to speak out cloud.”

Dean Henry Hull of Down spoke in defence of the grammar schools, academic selection and streaming. But he wondered how motivated many teachers are, and said every school had to become a good school.

Speaking as a parent and one of the “transfer reps,” Mrs Hilary McClay (Down and Dromore) encourage the Board of Education to be a “voice for the under-dog.” Smaller schools, which were best able to deal with children with autism or English as a second language, but they were the schools threatened with closure.

“I wish the Bishop of Derry were the Minister for Education,” said Canon John McKegney (Armagh). “But,” he quipped, “I’m not sure he’s a member of Sinn Fein.”

Speaking on education in the Republic of Ireland, Mr Adrian Oughton (Meath and Kildare) said our schools are not multi-denominational schools, despite their portrayal in the media. “Our schools are Church of Ireland schools.” He criticised the publication of league tables in newspapers.

The Bishop of Meath and Kildare, Dr Richard Clarke, said we are moving into uncharted territory and an uncertain future, and said we needed to be open about the issues that would have to be debated.

Mr Alan Gillis (Cashel and Ossory) said if wanted to protect the ethos of our schools, parents must get involved. Canon Ricky Rountree of Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, spoke of the struggles in getting permission to have a new school built. “A building constructed in 1819 … is a health and safety nightmare.”

The Rev Patricia Hanna, chaplain at the University of Limerick, said there was no formal training for college for chaplains, and no forum for the chaplains to get together. Canon Doris Clements (Tuam, Killala and Achonry Diocese), a former school principal, said the ethos of Church of Ireland schools was noticeable, and pleased with everyone to ensure that ethos was retained.

The Secretary of the Board of Education Northern Ireland, the Rev Ian Ellis, drew attention to the new editions of Safeguarding Trust available in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

The first part of the morning’s work was taken up with formally wrapping up the legislation tabled earlier in the week, passing all four bills, and concluding the debate on the report of the Commission for Ministry.

The General Synod passed a motion this morning asking for a bill to be brought before next year’s General Synod in Armagh to allow for payment to be made to non-stipendiary ministers. Proposing the motion, Mr Wilfred Baker (Cork) said the “non-stipendiary ministry has been a victim of its own success.”

Archdeacon Robin Bantry White (Cork) spoke of the critical role played by NSMs. “There would be no hospital chaplaincy going on at all this week were it not for non-stipendiary ministry,” he said. “It would be best if the structures were adapted and adapted correctly.”

Archbishop John Neill of Dublin said that while he was keen to support the motion, there were problems relating to Social Welfare legislation. “In order to get that changed, it might require legislation through Dáil Eireann. It is not a canon law difficulty, it is a civil law difficulty, and we have to get that sorted out,” he said. Bishop Michael Burrows (Cashel and Ossory) told synod: “This motion addresses an injustice and a folly in how we structure our ministry.”

Late on Wednesday, Mr Andrew McNeile (Dublin) said “the commission recognises that in many parts of the country non-stipendiary ministers are carrying out roles that are much broader in scope than was possibly originally envisaged, sometimes even equivalent to a full-time incumbent.”

Earlier this morning, the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Rev Roy Cooper, was warmly received when he addressed Synod.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. He is a representative of the Diocese of Dublin at the General Synod.

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